You may not have heard of Jamie Kilstein, but if you're politically active and like to laugh, perhaps you have heard Kilstein. The stand-up comedian co-hosts the online radio podcast Citizen Radio with Allison Kilkenny — they're presenting a live sold-out Citizen Radio broadcast tonight at the UCB Theatre in New York City with guests Janeane Garofalo, Matt Taibbi, Jeremy Scahill, and Jack Dishel. Here's a recent clip of Jamie Kilstein's stand-up, which garnered Retweets from Tim Minchin and Joe Rogan, about gay rights:
But the first thing I wanted to know about Kilstein when we talked on Sunday was the source of his 609 area code. "I grew up in central Jersey," Kilstein said. "Right in between Princeton and Trenton."
I know you're vegan, but do you still know and honor the Hoagie Haven? "When I was growing up, I was a stoner, and I was the opposite of a vegan. And the only thing I ate was the bacon cheesesteak. (Editor's Note: My personal favorite) A lot of times, people think people who are vegans are self-righteous and proselytizing. Yeah, I went all the way with the bacon. If you went down a little farther on Route 1 toward Rutgers, I started out at the Stress Factory in New Brunswick. (laughs) They had something called the grease trucks. I don't think Princeton would ever have something called the grease trucks but New Brunswick embraces the fucking grease trucks….we would eat those awful sandwiches."
Wait. Hold up. I'm trying to imagine you starting out at the Stress Factory?! "I was terrible. I think when I was starting out, I think my grade, I think the grade before me, a lot of people were writing like Dave Attell. My grade was when Opie and Anthony were blowing up so a lot of people were like Jim Norton. But what makes Jim Norton special…was that he was brutally honest. I think when comedians are starting out they extract the simplest part of a comedian's formula and extrapolate that to think that's what going to blow them up, too. All they saw was "n" jokes with rape or AIDS. And you'd have edgy jokes with no substance or punchlines. If you scream at the audience you could go, 'That was for you, Sam Kinison!' But they would yell at the audience."
Kilstein said he had to realize that when a comedian like Bill Hicks was yelling at the audience, it wasn't about the volume, but about getting his point of view across. "When I started out in comedy and asked every comedian for advice, they always said you have to find your voice. I think a more detailed way to say that is it take you eight to 10 years to just be yourself on stage. It's not just being who you are…and then they get onstage and you just say what the fuck are you doing? The reason is that when you start comedy, you dont try to be yourself, because you're young, who are the fuck are you. I cared about political issues but I didn't talk about that onstage, so my first couple of jokes were blah blah blah, my father touched me! or Sun Chips! It was just as Jersey gross as you would imagine. But then you realize the goal is to be the same person offstage as you are onstage."
Aren't you a bit young to be such a political comedian? "I know. I worked on a dog-age schedule. I dropped out of school. I was 16 or 17 when I started. And then I was just sucking in New York. I moved to New York when I wasn't good. But I feel most people who moved here have that attitude, that i was ready! I was doing that thing where I was handing out flyers in the Village. I was couch-crashing with friends for a year. I was squatting wit my friend Liz. She grew up in Pennington, too, Liz Miele. I was working in a toy store in Pennington when I was 17. She walked in and said she wanted to be a comedian and asked for advice. And I was just an open miker! But I felt like a professional…I would wake up in the morning and box for two hours, and then work in a bookstore because I was that horrible cliche of an artist…and then I'd hand out flyers for the Boston Comedy Club…yeah, people wouldn't expect that of me."
Kilstein met Kilkenny at the bookstore, and one day, they quit. "Finally Allison and I said, Fuck it. If we just live in our car and drive around and I look for gigs and she writes, we'd have a living. It was just kind of a mental trick. So we drove around for like a year and eight months. I would perform every night in coffeeehouses and weird venues, and Allison would write the whole time. So I was performing every night. and then when I started going overseas (to Edinburgh), you perform for an hour a night for 20 nights, on top of other 20-minute sets that you perform at other shows. I think I got better faster just because I was performing so much."
He thinks that also may be how stand-ups in the U.K. seem to progress at a faster rate than American comedians, since they're doing new hours of material each year, while we're jockeying to do the same five or seven minutes over and over. As for Kilstein's political bent, he credits Kilkenny for a bit of that, saying "she would just read books to me in the car" as they drove around America.
Is that how Citizen Radio came about? "I had a manager who would have these great ideas that he could do nothing about. He would say you should have a radio show. Great! How do I do that? I don't know." They launched the show on BlogTalk, "where you do it from your cell phone," he said. "I would call in to a number, and Allison would call in to another number, and then you're on live. It was right around the (2008) election. The Democratic primaries is when we started. And then the Nader campaign heard about it and that's when our audience took off. It was crazy, though. No matter what you think of Ralph Nader as a presidential candidate, he has been a legend for so long. He's the reason we have seat belts.
We have him on the show and he has no idea he's talking to us in our kitchen. We're both there, and we can't stand too close to each other, because if we do there's feedback. It just started getting bigger and bigger."
"So we found this online thing, BreakThru Radio. It was the only comedy show, and all of their music was independent, like Sub Pop, nothing from a commercial label. But he said what we're trying to do with music is what youre trying to do with comedy and politics…keep people who are dumbing it down away…it was the first meeting that Allison and I had that we walked away from feeling good."
Kilstein said tonight is their first attempt at a live show, and he reflects back on those phone calls from his apartment, and getting the chance to talk to historian Howard Zinn in his home shortly before he died. Here is a link to that Citizen Radio interview with Howard Zinn. "And Howard Zinn was the reason I got into politics," Kilstein said. "The problem with liberals a lot of times is that they're lazy. I think the problem may be that they're right, and they look at crazy conservatives, and think that will work itself out because the world is not full of assholes. But the conservatives get out there on TV" and make their voices heard, while liberals sit back and get stepped on. He said he and Kilkenny hope to show young liberals that someone is speaking for them. "We try to show them there are other people who are like them."
I noticed that on your 2009 CD, "Zombie Jesus," you recorded a full bit about Sarah Palin less than two weeks after she was introduced as the VP candidate. That was pretty daring to put that on the record, wasn't it? "I, as a comedian, took the immediately pessimistic view that when this CD comes out oh, no, I'm another fucking hack who has Sarah Palin jokes. When I wrote about her, she wasn't being portrayed as stupid yet, because she hadn't had the opportunity to show people she was stupid. Lately people have come up and asked me if there are any right-wing comedians that I like. I tried to watch that right-wing Daily Show on FOX News. Allison and I watched it, we said, we're going to be open-minded. But I remember we watched it. iI was really juvenile humor. Barack Obama, his initials are B.O., which means he smells?!"
"Comedy comes from a realy tortured place. Much like the blues was, it comes from a place for people who were disenfranchised. Conservative humor is just really mean. It's like that bad MC that you just cringe at. Conservative comedy is the reason you don't want to sit in the front row at comedy clubs. That horrible mean schoolyard bully, obvious say the first thing you see: 'Where are you from? Faggot!'"
You closed your CD with a bit about trying to be a political comedian in a mainstream comedy club. Do you still feel the same way about it, that those two things don't fit together? "It's evolved, yes, because I'm better now than I guess I was. It was never the people's fault. For that bit, I just really talked about these hacky topics and tried to make them socio-political. If it wasn't for the international work and the radio show, I don't think I'd be making a living. The UCB, the Lakeshore Theater in Chicago and the Punchline in San Francisco. They took a chance on me and let me headline."
"It's so bizarre to me that people make politics this sacred thing that people don't want to hear about. You mean people don't want to hear about what makes this country work?" He related a tale about working at Comedy TN in Memphis before that club closed. "The club wrote me back and asked do you feature or do you headline? I didn't know how comedy worked, and I said I'd just feature for 25 years and one day I'd get my big break. I was going to say no. And I looked (at their website) to see who was going to headline that week and it was some guy with a bag of props and I thought, fuck that guy, I can headline. I had only a half hour of material but, why not. And it was a 'red state.' But if you give people the chance to be adults. you know, a lot of times they will be. They may be drunken idiots, but they're adults." Then again, he knows that being political keeps him from getting some gigs. "If I was more famous and said the things I'd said I'd get booked more. At the same time, I've had conversations with TV people and club owners where they've said we're looking for more middle of the road," because he said they feel if you're political, you automatically alienate half of the potential audience.
How do you feel, then, about a world in which "Jersey Shore" comes out of nowhere and becomes the most talked-about thing in our culture for a hot minute? "I only saw one episode. God, with all of those shows. It's not worse than a lot of these talk shows. It's not worse than the news. Here's where I draw the compromise. I should be that comedian where I talk about how this show is everything that's wrong iwth the world, but if you want to watch that shit ironically or because you had a bad day or want to feel bettter about yourself, go for it. When I'm on the road in hotels, I watch 24-hour news, and when MSNBC or CNN between talking about the world's issues, takes a break to talk about Jersey Shore, this is when we're fucking dumb. Why are they playing a clip??? That's not fucking news. That's a fucking shitty TV show. And if you want to watch that, go for it. I think the reason shows like that are so popular is because you don't have to confront your own problems. They love watching Jerry Springer, because they love watching trashy people having affairs, or they love waching about John Edwards, or Tiger Woods. It makes them feel better about their own lives and it makes them complacent."
"A lot of people assume that American comics go overseas to trash America. But I'm not going to make fun of Americans who supported the (Iraqi) war because they weren't getting the facts. I can go online and learn the facts, because I don't have a job and have all the free time in the world, but a woman with three kids might not have the time to learn what's going on. When you turn on the TV and all you hear is Jersey Shore and John Edwards, they should have a separate channel for that…when you do hear real news, you feel overwhelmed. I can't stop the war. I can't fix health care. But then you see the Jersey Shore clip, and think, I don't punch kids on the boardwalk, so I must be a-OK. It's easier to watch shows like that, Jersey Shore or profesional wrestling. I can watch that CEO get hit by a chair."
Related: Buy Jamie Kilstein's CD, Zombie Jesus: